Construction has gotten underway at the downtown Sarasota intersection and Longboat leaders again raise concerns about barrier island backups.
Longboat Key town commissioners and residents have continued to express their concerns to state transportation officials even as construction has started in downtown Sarasota on the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
Reducing northbound traffic on U.S. 41 from three lanes to two during is among town commissioners’ main worries about the $8.6 million project. A third left turn lane from the barrier island north to U.S. 41 was added in 2018 and credited with smoothing traffic. That lane disappears in the final roundabout plan.
“I guarantee you there will be a backup coming off the island,” Vice Mayor Mike Haycock said of the traffic flow plans. “The question would be, is there enough of a flow going north-south for them to get into that roundabout and get out safely?”
At-Large Commissioner BJ Bishop recalled when the Florida Department of Transportation shut down the third northbound lane of U.S. 41 for when crews worked on the roundabout at Fruitville Road in 2019.
“A year and a half ago, when you all eliminated one lane of traffic coming off the island, it absolutely paralyzed, not only St. Armands, but Longboat Key for probably, at times, in excess of five miles,” Bishop said. “My concern continues to be, when we have that kind of paralyzed traffic here, what changes have you all made in your design studies to mitigate ensuring that that kind of nightmare does not happen again?”
CDM Smith senior project engineer Chris Pecor was part of the Florida Department of Transportation’s construction team that presented to the Town Commission on March 22.
“For right now, it’s not changing in this pre-phase construction is the same as what it is today, but throughout the construction phasing then that will get reduced down to two lanes,” Pecor said. “And, that’s in order to get the construction done.”
FDOT has hired Russell Engineering for the project. Russell has a $400,000 incentive to finish the project early by March 19, 2022, according to FDOT materials.
“If the contractor makes that date, [they] would get that full incentive,” FDOT construction manager Jim Nichols said. “Now, there is a graduated system, and that is based on 80 days. So for example, from that max incentive date, you finish say 20 days after that, then they would get a percentage of that $400,000.”
Pecor said FDOT will conduct another corridor study once construction is completed and the roundabout is in place around fall 2022. A series of interim flow patterns will begin this summer, including one in which a segment of westbound traffic criss-crosses to the left of eastbound traffic on John Ringling Boulevard as a portion of the yet-to-be completed roundabout is used. A similar right-to-left crossover takes place on Bayfront Drive near Main Street.
Longboat Key town commissioners have also advocated for a temporary overhead crosswalk to help with pedestrian crossings to help keep traffic moving and not subject to on-demand HAWK signal stops. The possibility still exists.
“The department’s been working with the Ritz-Carlton because we have to encroach on their property for our footprint to land that pedestrian bridge,” Nichols said. “[We] actually have to meet ADA compliancy, which means that there has to be a ramp that’s approximately 180 feet, give or take a little bit, on both sides of [U.S.] 41.”
Nichols said FDOT also has to work out right-of-way agreements and environmental studies for the pedestrian bridge.
“Those are progressing well,” Nichols said.
Another potential problem is the timing of the construction schedule.
“That’s a very real hurdle because we all want to get this project done and not impact the second season, and so we’re looking at whether or not the timeliness of the construction of this pedestrian bridge would impact the construction schedule, which could flirt with the second season,” Nichols said. “If we felt it was going to impact the construction schedule, we’d have to re-evaluate the value of that or not.”
New District 2 Commissioner Penny Gold expressed her support for building the pedestrian bridge.
“If we don’t have a walkway, I think the importance of that is not just for the safety of crossing, but also traffic flow,” Gold said. “So even a temporary walkway, I think would make a huge difference during construction, but if there’s any way to make that permanent afterwards, I think that would help as well.”
Pecor acknowledged that FDOT has heard Gold’s perspective before.
Former Longboat Key District 4 Commissioner Jack Daly has advocated for a permanent pedestrian bridge for years. Daly also served as the commission’s representative on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The Town Commission is set to determine Daly’s replacement on the MPO Board during its April 5 meeting.
Bishop was blunt in sharing her traffic concerns with the continued development throughout the Sarasota area, which includes The Bay Sarasota park project.
“At what volume of traffic do these roundabouts get a failing grade?” Bishop said. “When we look at the density that’s being created on [U.S.] 41 in terms of the apartments being built and the continued density of volume, I would imagine that you’re going to face a failure of traffic in these roundabouts at some point.
“What volume of traffic is going to make these no longer functional?”
Nichols said the plan is consistent with projections in the Sarasota 2050 plan, which accounts for population growth in the area. He estimated more than 40,000 cars per day travel the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
Bishop said the projections might not accurately reflect the large number of people who continue to move to or visit Florida.
“Obviously, as we have seen the numbers of people coming into Florida increase dramatically with the pandemic, I would imagine that those numbers are going to probably get thrown out the window pretty quickly,” Bishop said.
FDOT also plans to raise the U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue roundabout a little bit more than 1 foot to help with stormwater draining, Nichols said.
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